A Legacy of Song: Both singing, teaching enthrall soprano Linda Poetschke

In March 2002, the Express-News music critic Mike Greenberg began one of his many reviews of Linda Poetschke’s performances with these words: “For one hour each year, complete happiness is attainable on earth. That is the hour of soprano Linda Poetschke’s annual recital, the latest edition of which held the audience spellbound Monday in the Recital Hall of the University of Texas at San Antonio.”

Can there be higher praise for a singer than to be the source of “complete happiness” when she is performing? And that review is not an isolated case. Whenever she is on stage, Poetschke, who teaches voice at UTSA, garners applause and accolades from both critics and audiences. Her lyric soprano can soar to silken heights, whisper with crystalline clarity and roam across the classical repertoire with a confidence that comes from both talent and experience. There is virtually no serious music lover in San Antonio who doesn’t know her.

“I love singing,” she says modestly. “To share the music and to touch people in a way that makes them feel something they haven’t felt before is very gratifying. When I sing, I want to communicate to the hearts and souls of people.”

Because of her teaching duties Poetschke doesn’t appear on stage as often as her admirers would like, but she takes part in at least five or six concerts a year, plus special appearances at events such as Fiesta Under the Stars, an official UTSA-organized Fiesta event. Over her 30-year performing career, Poetschke has appeared as a featured soloist with many chamber ensembles here and elsewhere, in opera productions, at professional conventions and with major philharmonic orchestras, including frequent stints with the San Antonio Symphony.

Most recently, she shone in a solo Christmas concert and will be singing again this month and in April at UTSA faculty recitals. Though she is not against venturing into jazz or musical theater — she loves Cole Porter — her main domain remains classical, or art, music, as many musicologists prefer to call it.

“At this point I have a fairly large repertoire, and I am usually asked to do pieces from that repertoire, whether it’s with a chamber group or a symphony,” she says. “I love singing opera, and I had done a lot of it when I was younger with various regional companies, but opera is hard for me now because it requires a commitment of several weeks at the time. I can’t leave my job for that long. But I still do opera excerpts.”

Her office walls are covered with framed posters and photos of the productions she’s been in. Favorite operatic roles include Violetta in La Traviata, Despina in Cosi Fan Tutte and Musetta from La Boheme. Among the grand choral oratorios, a special place in her heart is reserved for The Messiah, as well as Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Poulenc’s Gloria.

Attractive as performance is, however, San Antonio’s best-known soprano admits that she increasingly derives great satisfaction from teaching others to sing.

“Had you asked me even five or six years ago, I would have said that it’s performing that lights the fire under me, but now, maybe because I am getting older, I love my teaching,” she says. “Teaching voice is not like teaching other classes.”

The UTSA music department has about 70 voice majors, she explains, 15 to 18 of whom are her direct responsibility. These students must take a range of subjects such as music theory, music literature, diction, piano, foreign languages and others, but the voice lessons themselves are always one on one. Poetschke has a piano in her studio for that purpose and spends hours every day working individually with students.

In addition, she conducts seminars where “we sing for each other and critique each other” and supervises student concerts and staged shows. But beyond that, she is one of the leaders in the department that she deeply cares about.

“Not only does she carry one of the heaviest teaching loads in the department, but she is always encouraging other faculty to implement new things that may benefit the students,” says music department chairman Dr. Gene Dowdy. “Her students think extremely highly of her. Linda is really the crown jewel of the department. Other institutions have tried to recruit her, but she stays here because she loves this school and San Antonio. Did you know that in 1996 an endowment was created in her name?”

Dowdy is referring to an endowed vocal scholarship initiated by Ernestine Studer, a voice teacher herself, who rallied support for the scholarship to honor her distinguished colleague. Poetschke was also recognized by the UTSA Alumni Association, which awarded her its Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award the same year.

Singing with Mom

“My first memory of singing was with my mom, who had a great voice,” recalls Poetschke with tenderness. “We played records and sang along with Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day. I was only 4. My mother entered me in a Junior Miss Little Rock contest, and I sang and won. I remember being on a radio program.”

Little Linda was clearly musically talented, so when the family moved back to Tyler, Texas, her mother, Bonnie Catt, signed her up for piano lessons. But singing was closer to her heart. She sang at piano recitals, in church and everywhere else she could until at 13 she became the student of Clyde Wolford, the vocal coach she still remembers with fondness. Because her parents couldn’t afford both piano and voice lessons, Wolford offered to teach her for free if she would sing in the church choir he directed. It was a deal that made everyone happy.

“I studied with him all throughout high school,” says Poetschke. “It never occurred to me that I would want to do anything else but sing. That was something I could do well.”

The budding soprano eventually earned a vocal performance degree from the University of North Texas in Denton, but before she could properly launch her career, she found herself married to Air Force officer Edward Poetschke, who promptly whisked her away to Taiwan. Back in the United States a few years later, the couple lived the typical military life punctuated by frequent moves except that, in this case, all the moving was inside Texas.

“That was fortunate for me because I had contacts in Texas,” says Poetschke. “The music world was relatively small; we all knew each other. So I started singing with symphony orchestras in Texas. Not only did I get a chance to improve my career despite the moving, but I also got my master’s degree from UT Austin.”

Poetschke joined the UTSA faculty in 1984 as an adjunct, moving to a tenure-track position five years later. (She is now a full professor.) As her career blossomed, Edward decided to retire from the Air Force rather than accept a transfer to Washington, D.C., when one presented itself in 1991. By this time, they were the parents of two adolescent sons, and they enjoyed living here.

Despite her steady success as a soloist, she’s never had an agent, she says. All her engagements came through people who had heard her sing. While her local and regional fame was spreading, Poetschke also traveled abroad to the great capitals of Europe to both teach and perform.

In late May she will be returning to the Old World with the UTSA Concert Choir, first to Austria to take part in the celebrations of Mozart’s 250th birthday, and later to Prague and finally to the Mecklenburg Festival of sacred music in Germany. She is scheduled to perform at each of these stops. Then in the summer of 2007, the now seasoned professor will spend six weeks in Graz teaching at the prestigious American Institute of Music Studies.

Among so many performances, does any one event stand out in her mind?

She doesn’t have to think very hard about that. Back in 1994, she was the soprano soloist in Mozart’s Requiem at Carnegie Hall. It was both exciting and sad. While “to stand there where so many great performers have stood” filled her with awe, the moment was also bittersweet because her mother was no longer here to witness it.

“Oh my goodness, Mother would have loved it,” says Poetschke, who cites the loss of her mother, her greatest fan, as the toughest experience of her life.

Leaving a legacy

Though she is personally well known, Poetschke is annoyed that many San Antonians still seem unfamiliar with the musical riches UTSA has to offer.

“We are a little bit of a stepchild of the university scene in San Antonio,” she says. “We have over 300 music majors; we have so much going on here in the music department — choirs, orchestras, opera, musical theater — and people tell me it’s the best-kept secret in town. When we do Fiesta Under the Stars, people say they didn’t know about it. Why are we a secret?”

There is no easy answer to that. It’s probably a combination of downtown-centric media, poor PR and the perception that the university is hard to reach. But whether the rest of the city notices or not, Linda Poetschke is proud of her students. She has now been a professor long enough to have “grandchildren,” meaning children of her former students. Some of her students have gone on to successful stage careers; others have become teachers themselves. A good many are still in San Antonio contributing to the musical education of new generations. And ultimately that’s why she likes teaching.

“That’s how you leave a legacy, by investing in the lives of your students,” says the gracious professor. “Performing is a great high, but then you do it and it’s over, although people may remember it. (One of my teachers) used to say, “Remember, you don’t teach voices, you teach people.’ And that’s so true because our bodies, our minds and emotions are all involved when we sing since our instrument is our own voice. That investment you make in your students lasts for years and years.”

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Janet Rogers

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